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journalism & war

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Egypt: press freedom at a crossroads

Thu, 06 Nov 2014 10:39:13 +0000

The military-backed regime in Egypt has an answer to criticism—blame the messenger. But journalists are fighting back. src="//" width="460" height="259" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen> Under Threat: Egyptian Press in Peril from Committee to Protect Journalists on Vimeo.The current Egyptian government is trying to roll back time, reversing one of the gains of the revolution of 2011 by cracking down on the press and forcing independent and critical voices into silence, exile, prison—or worse. But local and international voices are desperately resisting. With six journalists killed in relation to their work in Egypt last year, the country was ranked third most dangerous in the Risk List of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which highlights countries where press freedom is in decline. Dozens of reporters have been detained since the military ousted the former president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 and at least 11 journalists are still in jail. The government tries to appease the international community by arguing that the country is on track for democracy, justifying restrictive measures under an “anti-terrorism” banner. Testimonies Today CPJ is releasing a documentary, Under Threat, produced jointly with See Media, an Egyptian production company managed by veteran journalists. The film examines the killing and imprisonment of several journalists through personal testimonies. Linked to it is an appeal for discussion on social media at #EgyptLastWord. The hashtag is to encourage independent voices to speak up, so that when the Egyptian government discusses aid and investment with international partners it does not enjoy the last word. In the face of criticism, Cairo has made some concessions. In September, ahead of the first trip to the US by the commander-turned-president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, three journalists were freed. When al-Sisi was pressed during the trip about the sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to long prison terms in June, he said he could not interfere with the independent judiciary—although he has exerted influence in several previous cases. He may yet do so: reports are variously circulating that the president intends to pardon the Al Jazeera staff and others after their final verdict and that a new draft law will allow him to hand over such foreign detainees to their governments.   False choice Meanwhile, journalists in Egypt are speaking up against all odds. At the weekend, hundreds signed a statement rejecting the false choice offered by the government between their freedom and fighting terrorism. In the statement, which at time of writing had 588 signatories, the journalists said: "Standing up to terrorism with a shackled media and sealed lips means offering the nation to extremism as an easy prey and turning public opinion into a blind creature unaware of the direction from which it is being hit or how to deal with it." In doing so, they defied many of their own editors, who had pledged almost blind support for al-Sisi's government on 26 October. Of their editors' viewpoint, the journalists said: “It represents a betrayal of the readers' right to knowledge ... [and] the nation's right to a free press that confronts terrorism equally as it confronts tyranny." Penal code The authorities should release all journalists in prolonged detention without charge, including the photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid (“Shawkan”) who has been held for more than 400 days. The government can also amnesty convicted detainees like Abdel Rahman Shaheen, a correspondent for Freedom and Justice News Gate, who was sentenced in June to three years in prison. Most importantly, it should amend the penal code to ensure that journalists cannot be prosecuted or detained for doing their jobs. This will be the ultimate test—one that first Morsi and now al-Sisi have to date failed.[...]

Objectivity vs. neutrality on Gaza

Tue, 05 Aug 2014 17:44:20 +0000

The Palestine-Israel conflict poses a moral dilemma for journalists. But being objective does not necessarily mean being neutral, and being fair does not mean refraining from making a judgement. Choosing sides As reporters swarm the besieged streets of the shrinking Gaza strip, there has been an inundation of harrowing images and reports throwing Israel and its motives into utter disrepute. Palestinian mothers crying in anguish over the death of their children, families searching through rubble for survivors, hospitals littered with blood drenched casualties of the Israeli war machine – these images swell up inside us contempt for the perpetuators of such crimes. Yet despite the international condemnation, the motives for these actions have been a hotly debated. I have even found it to be a polarising topic within my own circle of friends, despite most of them being strongly against the killing of innocent civilians. Was it the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers? Are they looking for tunnels or for revenge? Is Hamas rocket fire to blame? Disregarding the constantly changing narrative (and the fact most of these reasons have been largely discredited), social media has been rife with accusations of propaganda from both sides. I myself have been accused of spamming pro-Palestinian articles on /r/worldnews – an internet community that has been targeted by pro-Israel groups such as the JIDF. So the question remains – is it morally acceptable for reporters to pick a side? Certainly as journalists we have a duty to be impartial when reporting the facts, even though this can be argued to be a futile task. Any effort to disseminate news on a contentious issue will inherently cause accusations of media bias, “because journalists are human beings and journalism is not an exact science,” said Hilary Aked, writing for OpenDemocracy in 2012. “There is a great deal of truth in the assertion that to some extent one’s critique will depend on how the conflict is viewed,” she added. We are emotional beings at our very core, and view all issues through the lens or prism of our own emotional sensibilities. And so it is of no surprise then that many of us turn to social media to express our outrage when we feel an injustice has occurred. Quite simply, a significant majority of those who stand by the Palestinians do so because it is difficult to watch an injustice and not speak out. This is in itself a biological response, and is universal to humanity. For over a century now academics have studied this very issue, using anthropological and historical evidence to conclude that this sense of injustice is found everywhere, spanning across all cultures and periods of human history. The process of evolution itself has carved this sense into humans. Those who witness others being subjected to injustice often respond as though it was an act of aggression towards themselves. This can be a powerful motivational condition. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote it in 1963: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Cognitive dissonance Despite damning evidence of disproportionate aggression and international war crimes, many Israelis argue that they are the ones who have been demonised, and claim it is they who are in fact the victims of injustice. In turn many such persons choose to discredit opposing views as unduly partisan. But can it really be the case that those all over the world who all condemn the violence – international bodies, humanitarian organisations, world leaders, and so on – are simply liars, paid shills, or anti-Semitic? In 1956, Leon Festinger and two colleagues released a classic work of social psychology that studied this very kind of unwarranted belief. When prophecy fails follows the story of a small cult that wholly committed themselves to an apocaly[...]

On the frontline: citizen journalism in Syria

Thu, 20 Mar 2014 11:56:24 +0000

As the Syrian civil war moves into its fourth year, citizen journalists have filled the gap left by professionals denied access to or evacuated from the most dangerous country in the world for working journalists. But they are painfully aware of the growing uninterest of the international media in the unending conflict. Documenting horror: a girl is buried in her home by aerial shelling. Image / Hadath Media Center. All rights reserved.The familiar and feared sound of falling barrel bombs filled with explosives and sharp metal fragments breaks the dawn silence and awakens Aleppo. Then comes the sound of explosions, then the screams. Malek Blacktoviche rips his camera from the table beside the bed, dresses quickly and hurries out into the street in the direction of the explosions: “I run as fast as I can towards the place where the bombs struck. I capture photos and film the devastation and the deaths. But sometimes you cannot continue filming, if there are wounded who need my help. Then I have to put away the camera and try to help as many people as I can.” Malek is one of the many residents of Syria's cities, towns and villages who have become “citizen journalists” since the beginning of the civil war—individuals without journalistic experience who, often during a crisis, document what is happening around them. Often the work is done with the help of social media and simple cameras. “Before, I worked as a web developer for an IT company in Aleppo. But I lived without freedom of expression in a one-party state. So when the revolution came in 2011, I felt, like many others with me, that this was the moment we had waited for. It is my duty to document the revolution,” he said. The vital role of citizen journalists became widely recognised during the Arab Spring, as they began to record the demonstrations taken place in the Arab world. In Syria, the regime, which moved quickly to try to block social media, restricted international journalists' access to the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria is by far the most dangerous country for working journalists. Syrian citizen journalists have often becomes the only sources of information from within the war zones—but at their own risk: almost 80% of the journalists killed in Syria have been citizen journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. Intensified attacks Before the uprising, Tha'er Addinashqi was a student at the university in Damascus. Now he works for the Shaam News Network (SNN): “We risk our lives every day when we document the civil war. But we also face attacks directly aimed against the media centres or journalists. The regime has carried out such attacks since the beginning of the revolution but the Islamist groups have recently intensified similar targeted attacks against journalists. I am wanted by the Syrian security police.” Tha'er's father was arrested at his home and tortured in prison for over three months—he refused to reveal where his son was hiding. In early 2012, Malek was arrested while taking part in a demonstration. In prison, he too was tortured by the Syrian security police. After a week, he managed to collect the vast amount of money the police demanded in exchange for his release. Shortly afterwards he again became involved in the resistance against the government. Capturing the action on the street: a pro-opposition rally. Image / Hadath Media Center. All rights reserved.Noha Hussein previously worked as a journalist for a news agency loyal to the government. Now she lives in exile under an assumed identity to maintain her safety: “When the conflict intensified, I couldn't bear to spread the regime's perspectives on the events. There were a lot of us at the agency who gave our opinion about the situation in Syria. Many were arrested. We tried to report the reality to the international media using pseudonyms but it was very dangerous. After a while I was left [...]

Egyptian editors organise to confront media crisis

Wed, 05 Feb 2014 22:56:41 +0000

The military-backed government has sought to enrol journalists as foot-soldiers in its battle against the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. But when editors met this week in Cairo, a collective spirit stirred.  The elegant Greek Club in the heart of downtown Cairo has hosted many joyful society events over the years but the 30 or so editors and leading journalists who gathered there this week for the inaugural meeting of the Egyptian Editors Association were not in a cheerful mood. They met to kick off a much-needed debate about the collapse of ethical and independent journalism across the media landscape in the wake of the popular revolt against Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, who was ousted on June 30 last year. Six months on and with a new constitution safely confirmed by popular vote—including three precious articles protecting free speech and press freedom—the journalists, all of them with reputations for free-thinking and professionalism, were meeting to address an editorial crisis that has overwhelmed newsrooms in recent months. It had been such a bright beginning. Egypt’s democratic revolution of 2011 saw the removal of the former president, Hosni Mubarak, and his repressive regime. New media were launched and the number of minority voices being heard dramatically increased. The growth of pluralism generated unprecedented optimism about the scope for independent journalism and a new era of press freedom. Three years later, the dream is on hold. The election of Morsi, despite its electoral symbolism, did not respond to the aspirations of those wishing to press ahead with the democratic transformation of Egypt. Indeed, for many at all levels of Egyptian society, including the media, it revealed new threats. Having overturned the repression of Mubarak’s police state, progressive forces in Egypt were in no mood to hand over their hard-won democracy to the creeping religious fascism of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. As a result, many journalists, including some of the iconic media leaders of the revolution—such as the broadcaster ONTV and the daily Al-Masry Al Youm—became foot-soldiers in what they see as a continuing battle to save the soul of their revolution. This was no orchestrated conspiracy but rather a coming together of like minds. Journalists and editors from across the state and independent sectors found themselves linked by a shared alarm and frustration over the programme of the Morsi regime and within it a growing threat to the ideals of the revolution. Partisan reporting In the turbulent weeks after Morsi was removed, independent media found themselves drifting into a new role—as key players, along with the state-owned media, in a broad political front with the state, the military, the judiciary and the police. Notions of ethical, independent journalism were suspended and replaced by self-censorship and partisan reporting, as the interim, military-backed, civilian government targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. The group was banned as a “terrorist” organisation and has been driven underground.For most journalists the “national interest” is a wretched excuse for propaganda, deceptive handling of the truth and editorial malice This change of direction inside journalism and the perceived loss of objectivity has bewildered media observers outside the country and shocked some working with local partners to strengthen professionalism and diversity inside media. The media crisis is particularly felt by foreign journalists, who now find Cairo a threatening and hostile place. Twenty journalists, most from Aljazeera, have been arrested and face a range of charges. Some are in jail awaiting trial accused of aiding terrorism—that is, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Many journalists are threatened or forced to leave the country if they question or [...]

Violence against women in Syria: a hidden truth

Mon, 20 Jan 2014 19:44:17 +0000

Despite saturated media coverage of the conflict, violence against women in Syria has largely gone unreported. Often horrifically abused, they have been doubly victimised by the public silence. A man with a gun: the conventional media representation of Syria’s civil war has obscured the story of massive violence against women. Flickr / Freedom House. Some rights reserved.December 2012, a suburb of Damascus: ‘Samia’ and her friend ‘Lubna’ are stopped by governmental forces at a checkpoint. While the security personnel search the two women, an exchange of fire between armed groups and government troops breaks out. As the clash intensifies, the commander of the intelligence unit uses the two women to shield himself, pushing them into the line of fire until the troops manage to reach a safe area and leave the scene. The two women are then taken to the military airport were they are remanded in custody for several weeks.[1] Neither Samia nor Lubna speaks of their ordeal for fear of reprisals. June 2012, a village near Lattakia: ‘Kenda’, newly married and pregnant, is on her way to the clinic. Listening to a conversation she has with her husband, the driver—who happens to be an informant of the security apparatus—takes her to the military security branch in Latakia where she spends the night. Kenda is released after signing a paper stating that her husband is a ‘terrorist’. Her sister reports later that Kenda has been raped during her detention, miscarrying as a result. The stories of these three Syrian women did not make prime-time news. Yet thousands of women like Samia, Lubna or Kenda have endured the most atrocious of acts of violence, typically suffered through silent rejection and isolation by their peers. Amid the media’s bulimic coverage of the Syrian conflict, with its morbid daily body count and graphic imagery, there is still a little-known truth: Syrian women, young and old, are being targeted by all parties to the conflict. Being a woman in Syria has proved enough to cost one’s life.  As the civil war rages on, thousands of women are losing their lives in indiscriminate shelling against civilians. Hundreds more are killed in raids and massacres.   Many more are subjected to arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances by governmental forces and their supporting militias. Alarming statistics indicate that many of these women have undergone various forms of torture in detention centres to extract confessions. What these women have in common is they have been consciously pursued by competing parties in this bloody conflict—to put pressure on partners or brothers, or even (as in some reported instances) as human shields. Gaping wounds Reporting cases of violence against women is certainly no mean task. The socio-cultural context in Syria and issues of methodology continuously hamper documentation. Foggy areas remain as to whether—and, if so, how—these violations are to be addressed during the ‘transitional justice’ expected to follow the armed conflict. Equally uncertain is whether victims will eventually be provided with vital financial support, much-needed counselling and guidance to help them heal their gaping wounds. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) has sought to address this void. Because Syrian human rights-groups are confronting unprecedented challenges operating on the ground, providing assistance (technical and otherwise) and helping them reorganise has become the main task for EMHRN in the country. But before it could empower its Syrian members and partner human-rights, the network needed to map the scope and extent of severe violations.  Late last year, it published Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict. Being a woman in Syria has proved enough to cost on[...]

Women in journalism: not a trivial subject

Mon, 14 Oct 2013 08:49:46 +0000

The biggest newspapers in the United States, Britain and Europe still reserve pages of the most serious political and foreign policy analysis for older white men. Can girls even find Syria on a map? Jill Filipovic’s (tongue in cheek) rejoinder on the Guardian website last month aimed to poke fun at the bias in commissioning opinion pieces on foreign policy issues, noting the heavy weighting towards male bylines on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Filipovic’s piece swiftly garnered a huge response online, and an article from Buzzfeed's Sheera Frenkel, claiming that most correspondents covering the Syrian conflict were women. Filipovic’s central argument wasn’t disputed by Frenkel - the vast majority of opinion writers embraced across the global media continue to be male. This matters, because it frames the national debate, and in the case of Syria, influences political decision on military intervention, purporting to be a bell-weather for public opinion at large. If there are plenty of women working as correspondents and reporters, then relatively few female opinion writers and editors, then this indicates a problem in the industry. Women may be blogging more, make up more than 50% of Twitter users, and piling into varieties of journalism, but the biggest newspapers in the United States, Britain and Europe still reserve pages of the most serious political and foreign policy analysis for older men, and unsurprisingly, they're usually white. A study by Women in Journalism earlier this year found that across national newspapers, 78% of bylined front page stories were written by men, and of those quoted as experts or sources in lead stories, 84% were men. The Women’s Media Centre in the United States, on conducting similar research reported that during the 2012 presidential election, 75% of front page bylined articles at top newspapers were written by men and that women made up a mere 14% of Sunday TV talk show interviewees, and 29% of “roundtable” guests. Women in Journalism were quick to highlight one of the most worrying aspects of this imbalance: most stories involving women in the four week period surveyed, portrayed them as either victims or celebrities. While the gender gap in print is insidious, in broadcast media it’s glaringly obvious where radio stations and TV programmes are failing. BBC Radio 4‘s “Today” programme, long criticised for a dearth of female guests, provoked outrage when, during a segment on breast cancer, they admitted on air they’d failed to find any women to discuss the issue. Instead, they asked a male guest to “imagine” he was female for the purpose of the discussion. It was this that prompted Caroline Criado-Perez to launch The Women’s Room - an online database of female journalists listed by expertise. Helen Zaltzman, a broadcaster and podcaster who produces the pressure group Sound Women’s podcast points out “Only around 1 in 5 presenters on British radio is female, yet slightly more than half the audience is. And who knows what proportion of those on-air voices are allowed to do more than laugh sycophantically at their male co-presenter’s jokes? It would be great if, whenever jobs opened up, execs resolved to give more of them to people who aren’t white men”. Many female journalists discuss the struggle to get their voices heard on news coverage of any issue that isn’t seen to be “soft” or a gender issue. On foreign policy, there’s a running joke amongst female journalists that every story on the Middle East has a woefully ill-informed male commentator decisively informing presenters “it’s too early to say” in answer to any question that can’t be easily bluffed - there’s a tendency for men to put themselves forward as knowledgeable on all manner of subjects, and producers to accept this authority, whereas women[...]

Whose “Mission”? Celebrities, voice and refugees

Fri, 13 Sep 2013 08:27:04 +0000

A new Italian reality TV show is sending celebrities to refugee camps, but for refugees to be able to speak for themselves and convey the message they want to convey, the cameras must be given to refugees themselves, says Nath Gbikpi. “Mission”. While the first days everyone was calling it a “humanitarian reality show”, the producers prefer terms such as “docu-reality” or “social show”. It is the result of the collaboration of the UN Refugee Agency UNCHR, the Italian NGO Intersos and RAI, the Italian national public broadcasting company. From what is known up to now, eight Italian celebrities - from Italian Prince Emanuele Filiberto to singer Albano - will visit in couples different refugee camps in South Sudan, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for a period of 15 days. The final product will be two shows, which will air on prime time this coming fall.  Although no one has seen it yet, “Mission” has already aroused a number of critics, coming predominantly from the humanitarian sector, but also from politicians, including Laura Boldrini, current President of the Chamber of Deputies, and previous spokesperson for UNHCR Italy. Boldrini warned against the exploitation of refugees for the purposes of a TV show. A number of petitions are currently circulating on the web, asking for the show not to be broadcasted, most notably one at, which reached almost 90 000 signatures in a matter of days. The hashtag “#nomission” is increasingly seen on Twitter. The heated debate around the show has mainly divided those who believe that “the ends justify the means”, and thus if sending celebrities to a refugee camp is what it takes to raise awareness and funds about the crises, let it be; and those who associate that with “poverty porn” (the use of “words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value", "overuse of the word 'victim'" etc), and believe that there is a limit not to be crossed to ensure the respect and dignity of refugees. The “end” of the show is, according to the organisers, to raise awareness among the Italian public about refugee crises around the world, and to generate funds to support ongoing aid work in response to these crises. Indeed, the Italian public is generally little aware of refugee crises, and humanitarian crises more generally. According to a June 2013 report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in 2012 only 4% of the Italian newscast spoke about crises, conflict, humanitarian and health emergencies. Meanwhile, 63% of the Italian population expressed a wish for more information from the media on humanitarian emergencies. What is more, as MSF relates in the same report, according to a May 2013 survey, 78% of the sampled population considered the quantity of news about gossip to be excessive, while 60% requested more information on the work of humanitarian organisations and the ways they could help.  Another reason why a show that raises awareness could be useful in Italy is the level of hostility and ignorance that exists among the population towards refugees, asylum seekers and migrants more generally. A typical example of this is the widespread use of the word clandestini, a pejorative word to speak of irregular migrants which fails to differentiate between migrants and asylum seekers - whilst migrants may migrate for a number of reasons, asylum seekers are all potential refugees: individuals who are part of formal process in which they are asking for a state’s protection. A show that would help the general public to grasp the difference is certainly to be welcomed. What is more, the show could help to demonstrate that Italy, like its fellow European countries, only receives a very minimal portion of the overall number of refugees worldwide. Out of 893,700 n[...]

Afghan Voice Radio: The frontline of a ‘new’ Afghanistan

Mon, 19 Nov 2012 10:21:50 +0000

All around the world, Afghan youth who have fled abroad are investing in online media and sports as vehicles for civic participation and peace, says Zubair Gharghasht. In recent years, new forms of online media have given many Afghans in Afghanistan and in the diaspora the chance to participate in national debates and sporting events for the first time. Through their engagement, Afghans are forging the frontline of a ‘new’ Afghanistan. This ‘new’ Afghanistan is one which embraces diversity, creates bonds between Afghanistan's diverse religious and ethnic communities and elevates civil society as the primary force for peace. There may be many challenges to this model, but unity remains the right of ordinary Afghans.Radio in exile I founded Afghan Voice Radio, an online radio station which I run from exile in the UK, in 2010 in order to make my own contribution to peace and unity in Afghanistan through providing a global platform for dialogue and debate. It is a voluntary run, not for profit, independent community internet radio station; a safe place for freedom of expression, discussion, news, culture and analysis. As listener Habib Fazli recently commented on our Facebook page, “Afghan Voice unites Afghan youth and promotes Afghan culture. It brings people together.” I started experimenting with online radio in 2009 with just a notebook and a mixer, teaching myself about community internet radio and media via online tutorials. I soon found out that Afghans across the world were actually listening. The first callers were quite nervous and forgot what they were calling for. When Aman called us to a share a joke he only managed to say: “I had a joke but as soon as I dialed the number I completely forgot it!” Via Skype, Afghans living abroad started to message me song requests for friends and family they miss back home. Then people asked me if I could broadcast discussions and the first episode of our weekly discussion show, Hujra, was born. Hujra is an Arabic word which means 'guest house'. It is a very common word in Afghanistan, especially among Pashton villagers. It refers to the guest house where villagers welcome guests. The young men and elders also gather there to discuss important issues in the community. It is a public place where everyone is permitted: poor, rich, illiterate and educated alike. In a recent episode of Hujra, individuals from all generations called in to discuss the topic of arranged marriages, some phoning from Manchester, others from Kabul. It turned out to be one of our most popular programmes yet. People were talking openly and freely across generations and borders in a way that would never happen in most Afghan families. We have also run programmes on migrants’ journeys to Britain, a topic which receives scant attention in mainstream media. I’ve talked to people along the route, including campaigners in Calais and led a discussion of European asylum policy. Where we can, we’ve tried to link up with other initiatives reaching out to young migrants in the European diaspora, such as hosting a show for Young People Seeking Safety Week. Because of the time difference around the world our working hours are irregular and long and there’s always something unexpected going on. We start the day at 6 am UK time with news updates and usually  end the day with a Hujra show finishing at around 1 am, presented by Ahmad Shah Ahmadi from the UAE. Recordings are usually done in our Brighton studio but we increasingly send reporters out on location. Afghan Voice Radio studio Sports reportsSports have been a staple of our daily radio shows since we started broadcasting, whether coverage of the rising Afghan boxing scene or providing commentary on international cricket. The popularity of these shows reflects the growth [...]

Syria dispatches: Robert Fisk's independence

Fri, 14 Sep 2012 07:19:40 +0000

The reports from Syria of the journalist Robert Fisk raise serious questions over his credibility, say Yassin Al Haj Saleh & Rime Allaf. The international media has not always been kind to Syria’s revolutionary people. For months on end, many of the latter turned themselves into instant citizen-journalists to document their uprising and the violent repression of the Syrian regime, loading clips and photos taken from their mobile-phones to various social networks; still, the established media, insinuating that only it could really be trusted, covered these events with an ever-present disclaimer that these images could not be independently verified. Since the Damascus regime was refusing to allow more than a trickle of foreign media personnel into the country, chaperoned by the infamous minders, what the Syrians themselves were reporting was deemed unreliable. Nevertheless, an increasing number of brave journalists dared to sneak into Syria at great personal risk, reporting the same events which activists had attempted to spread to the world. For the most part, experienced journalists were perfectly capable of distinguishing between straight propaganda from a regime fighting for its survival and real information from a variety of other sources. Overwhelmingly, ensuing reports about Syria gave a voice to "the other side" or at least quoted opposing points of view, if only for balance. In some cases, journalists found no room to cater for the regime’s claims, especially when reporting from civilian areas under relentless attack by Bashar al-Assad's forces. It was from the wretched Homs district of Baba Amr, under siege and shelling for an entire month, that the late Marie Colvin, amongst others, testified on the eve of her death under the regime’s shells about the "sickening situation" and the "merciless disregard for the civilians who simply cannot escape." Like her, most of those who managed to get into Syria have testified about the regime’s repression of a popular uprising, even after the latter evolved to include an armed rebellion. The Daraya massacre Robert Fisk, a seasoned war correspondent who has covered the region for decades, surprisingly broke a mould, gradually allowing himself to become a part, and not simply a witness, of the Syrian regime’s propaganda campaign. On 30 October 2011, Fisk - who works for the Independent newspaper, and whose reports are widely republished - was a guest of Syrian state television for an extended interview during which his legendary directness seemed subdued, as he meekly advised his host that he feared the Syrian authorities were running out of time to turn the situation around. In an article entirely dedicated to Bouthaina Shaban, one of Assad’s advisors, he quoted some of her extraordinary tales without adding one of his trademark comments: thus, he didn’t challenge the claim that a Christian baker in Homs was accused (supposedly by the extremists the regime says are leading the uprising) of mixing whisky in the bread. Over the last few months, Fisk’s pieces on Syria have consisted more of commentary than of reporting, with a growing emphasis on the conspiracy scenario as he reminds readers that the governments criticising the Assad regime were themselves hardly examples of freedom or democracy. This is indeed true in many cases, but is not directly relevant to the Syrian people’s uprising, which moreover he increasingly reports in the sectarian terminology he had previously criticised when covering the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But even copious editorialising of this nature could not have heralded Fisk’s shocking decision to embed with the Syrian regime’s armed forces, when he had previously stated (on 22 January 2003) that "war reporters should not cosy up to the [...]

WikiLeaks and network-era news

Wed, 15 Aug 2012 05:48:30 +0000

The WikiLeaks storm of 2010 seems to be spent. But as a symptom of what is happening to journalism the WikiLeaks phenomenon carries profound significance, says Charlie Beckett. Julian Assange isn’t paranoid: they really are out to get him. Or rather - which may amount to the same thing - ignore him. For a glorious few months in 2010, WikiLeaks was one of the world’s best-known media brands, and its founder’s distinctive image had become a globally recognised symbol of radical digital politics. A short two years later, the sands have run through the WikiLeaks timer. An organisation that riled the world's most powerful governments and that was courted by the biggest news-media companies finds itself out of the limelight, while its figurehead sits in Ecuador's embassy in London waiting for his hosts to make a decision on his request for asylum. I am sure that this outcome annoys Julian Assange more than it does me, but having spent a year writing a book on WikiLeaks, I hope he doesn’t mind if I too feel a little personal pain. But there's consolation (for me at least) in knowing that the theme of the book - to ask what media analysts, students and practitioners can learn from WikiLeaks and its significance for journalism and politics in the networked era - is if anything even more relevant in 2012 than it was in 2010 (an argument developed in WikiLeaks: News in the Networked Era [Polity, 2012]). I think that WikiLeaks is the greatest challenge to journalism in the digital era. That might sound overblown, especially when a lot of people are very keen to move on and leave it behind. Diplomats who previously denounced WikiLeaks as a weapon of terror that threatened western democracy now claim it has had no impact. Journalists who rushed to publish the leaked "war logs" and cables now dismiss it as a one-off freakshow, and feel reassured that their familiar and comforting brands have not been usurped. ("Assange is mad, you know", they say, as if the editors and press barons who have paraded before Lord Leveson’s phone-hacking inquiry in London have come across as entirely normal human beings...). It's true that WikiLeaks has not lived up to Assange’s own high hopes that its revelations would alter the balance of global power. The prospects of a repeat, any time soon, of anything like its momentous publications of 2010 also look remote. Indeed, it is possible that this communications comet might just burn out, torn apart by the combined strain of personal-legal problems, financial crisis, external assaults and internal inertia. Yet there could be another future: Assange is a hugely gifted person and there are a group of committed people still working hard to reward the continuing loyalty of WikiLeaks' many followers around the world. In any event, if we look at the significance of WikiLeaks as a symptom of what is happening to journalism, rather than as a finished product in isolation from its context, I still think we should be taking notice rather than taking sides over Julian Assange’s remarkable project. The impact Here are three of WikiLeaks' lessons. Firstly, the WikiLeaks revelations of 2012 did have a material impact in lots of places. It is always difficult to quantify media effect,s but around the world people tell me that the "embassy cables" especially have played directly into local politics. Journalists continue to dig out items from them to illuminate current controversies (see, for example, Matt Kennard, "Haiti and the shock doctrine" [14 August 2012]). The security classification of the cables was actually relatively low, but their volume makes them useful far beyond this. It is also important to bear in mind the increased impact that a [...]

The rapid evolution of Al-Shabab’s media and insurgent “journalism”

Wed, 16 Nov 2011 10:57:41 +0000

The evolution of Al-Shabab’s media arm provides a window into the group’s overall maturation as an insurgent movement that has endorsed key elements of Al-Qaeda Central’s ideology while still focusing primarily on waging a domestic insurgency inside Somalia. The media arm of Somali Islamist insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab), the Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation, has evolved rapidly since its launch in 2007 and consistently produces high quality films in a variety of languages including Somali, Arabic, and English. Insurgent videos, first issued by its “Media Department” between 2007 and the summer of 2010, were initially relatively simple productions produced with often shaky, probably handheld cameras that resulted in often grainy footage and varying sound quality. However, Al-Shabab’s media made a revolutionary jump in 2009 with the landmark release of a 48-minute video, Labbayk Ya Usama (“We Heed Your Call, O’ Usama), in which the insurgent’s leader, Ahmed Abdi “Mukhtar Abu’l Zubayr” Godane, praises Al-Qaeda Central founder Usama bin Laden. The film is an impressive and incredibly polished multimedia production that, in its largest format, was 1GB in size. Understanding the rapid evolution of Al-Shabab’s media output is integral to understanding the insurgent movement’s strategic thinking and development since its emergence in 2007 as the primary Somali movement fighting the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Ethiopian military forces inside the country.Al-Kata’ib’s latest film, The Burundian Bloodbath: Battle of Dayniile, which was released on November 12, continues a media strategy launched by insurgent media during the summer of 2010, the presentation of some of its propaganda films as journalistic reporting from the frontlines of Somalia’s battlefields. The film is narrated by a masked Al-Shabab “reporter” with a British accent who tours the battlefield interviewing insurgent field commanders and showing sites where he says fierce fighting took place between insurgent and AMISOM forces. Other segments of the film show Dayniile’s market district, which the narrator and civilians interviewed say was destroyed by AMISOM artillery barrages during the battle, and cheering crowds of men, women, and children who come to view the displayed AMISOM casualties and a statement by Al-Shabab’s chief spokesman, Ali Mahamoud Rage. The narrator appears to be the same one who appeared in two previous Al-Shabab videos released in the summer of 2010, The African Crusaders and Mogadishu: The Crusaders’ Graveyard .The Burundian Bloodbath focuses on a fierce battle between Al-Shabab and Burundian soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) military force on which the TFG continues to rely for its survival. The battle took place on October 20 in Dayniile, a suburb of Mogadishu and resulted in heavy AMISOM casualties. Al-Shabab, through spokesman Ali Rage, claim that 101 Burundian soldiers were killed and displayed 76 bodies that it said were from this number. AMISOM officials vigorously denied Rage’s assertion, saying that only 10 AMISOM soldiers had been killed and accusing Al-Shabab of dressing up its own casualties in captured AMISOM uniforms. However, eyewitnesses reported that 60 AMISOM soldiers were likely killed in the fierce fighting in Dayniile and other locals said that the bodies displayed by Al-Shabab after the battle did not have typical Somali features. Families of missing Burundian soldiers were called by other soldiers from their country’s AMISOM contingent who reported that 51 soldiers were killed in the battle. The Burundian government has refused to publicly sta[...]

The foreign correspondent: James Cameron, 1911-85

Fri, 17 Jun 2011 09:58:43 +0000

A voice of wry observation and quiet authority that made humane sense of distant events to a domestic public helped James Cameron become the most respected international journalist in post-1945 Britain. But is there room for his world-reporting craft in a very different media age, asks David Hayes. The professional life of the journalist James Cameron, who was born on 17 June 1911, is indelibly linked to the major events and issues he reported in a career spanning half a century until his death in 1985: wars in Korea and Vietnam, cold-war standoffs, late-colonial emergencies, the dark overhang of nuclear weapons in an era of superpower rivalry. His work in other fields - books, including the autobiography Point of Departure, and television, where he became from the mid-1960s an accomplished travelling observer, including of his own copious career - also played a great part in securing his reputation more widely among Britain’s public as a figure of journalistic integrity and authority. The recognition of James Cameron’s achievement and example is reflected in the memorial award granted annually for distinguished foreign-affairs journalism by a British correspondent, an annual memorial lecture delivered by a respected practioner of the trade, and more generally in the esteem that still, a generation after his death, attaches to his name. All this is enough to justify a brief recollection on the centenary of his birth, and reflection on the enduring vitality of the classic virtues of journalistic inquiry he is held to embody. The witness If every notable journalist’s career is forever marked by a single moment, in James Cameron’s case it took place in 1950, during the early stages of the Korean war, while he was working alongside the photographer Bert Hardy for the news magazine Picture Post. Their illustrated account of the brutal treatment of political prisoners in Busan by forces of the South Korean leader Syngman Rhee was all the more shocking since the war had the authority of a United Nations resolution and Rhee owed his position to the United States. The exposure of what Cameron was to describe as “a straightforward case of political tyranny...under the United Nations flag” was, in the fevered atmosphere of the early cold war, regarded by those with the power to act not as a humanitarian or legal scandal but as a journalistic one. The appearance of the photos in the Picture Post resulted in the forced resignation of the publication’s editor, Tom Hopkinson, on orders of the proprietor, Edward Hulton. Cameron’s follow-up story, laboriously reworked to make it as “austere” as possible and remove any taint of emotion and partisanship (“I never worked so hard to write so badly”, he later said) was censored, and he resigned from the magazine. Cameron, the London-born son of a peripatetic and troubled Scottish lawyer turned novelist-journalist, had begun his career in Dundee and Glasgow with the DC Thomson group, acquiring there the technical and inventive skills (including copious use of couthy anonyms) necessary to master the style of this extraordinary company, sustained across a myriad of publications each designed for a particular social group: namely, moulding the divided and often desperate worlds of inter-war Scotland into a mawkish-comical plain-folk moralism. He moved in 1935 to the Daily Express and was subsequently transferred to London. At the time (and for decades later) that paper reflected the distinct imperial worldview of its proprietor, the Canadian tycoon Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), one that - since empires need to be alert to rivals and threatening crises, and for a world empire every crisis is potentially threatening[...]

The wrong target: air strike, legal limit, human voice

Mon, 11 May 2009 08:56:38 +0000

The military commander of the United States's efforts in Afghanistan, General David H Petraeus, announced on 10 May 2009 that he was appointing a senior colleague to conduct an investigation into the conduct of US air-strikes in Afghanistan. This follows a week when as many as 150 Afghan civilians may have been killed in such strikes in the west of the country, an outcome that has provoked demonstrations by Afghan students and protest from the country's president, Hamid Karzai.  The phenomenon of non-combatants being killed and wounded accidentally in the course of air-assaults intended to hit military targets has been a consistent feature of the wars of the 2000s in (for example) Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Gaza, and Lebanon. The details of each incident are as varied as these locations, yet the media reporting-cycle tends to settle into a familiar, constantly repeated pattern: * the military's initial press-release describes a precision-strike on a group of militants * a claim emerges that non-combatants have died in the relevant attack * the military responds by arguing that the civilians' non-combatant status had been compromised, either by participation of some of them in (for example) guerrilla action or by the use of civilian locations for military purposes * a series of claims and counter-claims are made about the numbers and identity of those killed and injured * the media caravan loses interest and moves on, leaving the competing accounts to be investigated (if they are) by those with the resources to do so - with little expectation of high-level publicity being attached to their findings. Paul Rogers's weekly column on openDemocracy has frequently addressed the issue of air-war and civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon and Gaza. A selection of relevant articles: "Endless war" (19 January 2006) "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006) "The war of the long now" (10 January 2008) "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008) "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009) "Afghanistan: the last throw" (3 April 2009) "Drone wars" (16 April 2009) These incidents and their brief media trail form part of the background noise of international politics. They are always "there", but so rarely followed up. In particular, the voices of the victims and their relatives are almost never heard. This is, as implied above, in part a problem for the media: of access, attention-span, independence and responsibility (see Eric V Larson & Bogdan Savych, Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime [Rand Corporation, 2006]). But it is also, I would argue, one for international humanitarian law. For the law itself as it stands has allowed a "culture of impunity" to envelop such incidents. This brief article poses the question: how can the protection afforded to non-combatants against "accidental" air-strikes and other military attacks be improved? An ethical dimension The principle in international law known as jus cogens - which "compels" universal and non-derogable observation on fundamental matters such as genocide or slavery - requires that states engaged in military action take precautions to avoid confusing non-combatants and combatants across a range of activities: weapons-selection, timing, and intelligence verification among them. The problem arises that in the latter set of cases this duty is in practice highly contextual, and may be hard to observe in absolute terms. The legal scholar and former director of legal services of the British army, APV Rogers, has ar[...]

“Information intervention”: a test of democratic intent

Tue, 11 Dec 2007 13:19:19 +0000

The role of information and communications in generating conflict throughout the 20th century is well documented. There are many examples, of which the propagation of Nazi ideology across Germany's airwaves and Joseph Goebbels's articles in Das Reich in the 1930s, and the leading role of the Hutu-controlled Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines in galvanising genocide in Rwanda, are only among the most notorious. Laura Kyrke-Smith works at the Polis media project of the LSE At the same time, information and communications have played a vital role in preventing and reacting constructively to conflicts, and in rebuilding societies attempting to recover from conflicts. The Potsdam agreement of August 1945, contained a provision to "prevent all Nazi and militarist propaganda" with the long-term intention to construct a more democratic media space. Similar interventions have been attempted in the wake of numerous conflicts since; in Kosovo, for example, the OSCE has invested millions of dollars in local media development since the 1999 war, on the grounds that "a free and responsible media is an integral component of any democratic society". While the first role (media as a source of conflict) has attracted a good deal of attention, the second (media as a mitigator of conflict) is arguably undervalued. This is particularly the case when information and communications form part of a wider intervention by one state, or group of states, in the affairs of another. The international community's intervention in Darfur - provisional and contested as it is - is but the most recent example of this attention-deficit; and it has occurred despite the very positive impact of radio stations established (by the BBC World Service Trust and Internews, among others) in Sudan itself and neighbouring Chad. But the problem lies too with the flaws in the way intervention has been conducted: for although freedom of information and effective communications flows are integral to democratic development, interventions to date have failed in two key respects: * as tools of intervention: the priority has consistently been the promotion of the agenda of intervening powers, rather than the local embedding of democracy. This denies information its potentially empowering role; the capacity of information as "self-determination" * the nature of the information and communications environment ultimately created. In this regard, the inclination has been towards a notion of persuasion and influence on grounds of self-interest, rather than the fostering of objective democratic debate or a sense of common purpose. The case for information intervention In a world of unprecedented global communicative potential and power, access to information and effective communications flows are integral to the actions of governments, groups and individuals alike. Interventions to promote democratic, social and economic development ought therefore to have a clear information and communications strategy - or at the very least, an awareness of the impact of the intervention on the information environment in which it operates. The idea that information plays a key role as the connective tissue in developing and deepening democracy is well established. In part, democracy is procedural, denoting structures and practices of government: an assembly for members of parliament, or elections. But there is increasing recognition that effective democracy must also be substantive; that is, embedding democratic values across society. Also in openDemocracy on the media and political conflict: Irena Brezna, "Dreams of authenticity: war, TV, and the Chechen mask" (1[...]

The media and the war: seeing the human

Tue, 20 Nov 2007 15:42:52 +0000

In the days after 11 September 2001, the coverage of the attacks in the American press produced one notable innovation. The New York Times launched an effort to write individual profiles of each of the nearly 3,000 victims. By the end of 2001, the Times had reported and written 1,800 "portraits of grief". This was part of the coverage that went on to win a Pulitzer prize. It was striking, and deeply moving, as an attempt to transform a mass killing into a personalised, individualised event - to present the victims not as symbolic but as specific human lives destroyed in a specific crime. This seemed a noble and powerful role for journalism in the face of unprecedented facts. Philip Bennett is managing editor of the Washington Post, where from 1999 to 2004 he was assistant managing editor for foreign news This article is the text of a talk delivered by Phil Bennett at a conference on Overcoming Extremism: Protecting Civilians from Terrorist Violence, held under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC on 22-23 October 2007 For more details of the conference and video links to its main presentations, click here I mention this to draw a contrast. Today, there is no analogous project in the media to portray the individual civilian victims of the conflicts that have followed 11 September. Terrorism and violence against civilians seems ubiquitous in our front pages and on television almost every day. Yet its victims seem largely invisible. I want to spend a few minutes today reflecting on why this might be. I approach this subject from my own experience as a journalist for more than twenty-five years. Although journalism has always identified with victims, the rise of the human-rights movement - focusing, to use the example of Amnesty International, on individual prisoners of conscience - converged in the 1970s and 1980s with narrative journalism that aimed to place the stories of real people at the centre of history. When done well, it turned victims into persons. I was reminded of this a few months ago by the death of Rufina Amaya, whose passing was marked by an essay on the front page of the Post's Style section. Who was Rufina Amaya? She was a peasant from the northeast corner of El Salvador who was the lone surviving witness of the El Mozote massacre in 1981, when hundreds of people were killed by the US-supported Salvadoran army. Her testimony gave a name to the massacre and identity to its victims and perpetrators. As a young reporter in central America during the 1980s, I was always trying to find other Rufina Amayas; witnesses whose stories could be investigated. They were a way for us to get closer to the story, often closer to the truth, and to make your way onto the front page from a distant conflict. Narrative stories and investigations that individualised violence against civilians became a staple of being a foreign correspondent. Profiles of victims routinely ran on the front page alongside a news story about an attack. This was true of victims of bus bombings in Israel. It was true in Bosnia. International military intervention in Kosovo was provoked in some measure by the photographs and stories of Kosovo refugees. These stories were so compelling that as an editor I can still remember the names of those who appeared in the Post, including Vjosa Maliqi, a young Albanian refugee whose story was captured by the Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter David Finkel. The approach applied not just to victims. There was also an effort to portray the soldiers, the suicide-bombers, the guerrillas or civilian death squad members behind the killings. This kind [...]

Halabja: whom does the truth hurt?

Tue, 04 Sep 2007 00:00:00 +0000

In his long reign of calculated cruelty Saddam has used every means available to him – from assassination, kidnapping and torture, to full-scale war, poison gas, ethnic cleansing, and mass deportation. But even by his standards, the gassing of civilians in Halabja on 16 March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, is an act with few parallels. It has also become the test case, repeatedly cited in recent months of build-up to another war, of how “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people”. But there are a few outstanding questions regarding Halabja, and Saddam is not the only villain. For years before this particular atrocity, only a handful of London-based reporters and regional specialists (including myself) condemned Saddam. Ours were lone and isolated voices. Most western media organisations lapped up the deliberately misleading agenda set by lobby briefings and the White House and State Department. In the words of Geoffrey Kemp, at the time the head of the Near & Middle East at the State Department - Saddam was “our son of a bitch”. The Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, was relentlessly demonised by US government sources, and a steady stream of stories appeared about children who were sent to clear minefields armed only with plastic keys to the ‘pearly gate’ of martyrdom. Khomeini was the monster who had to be stopped by all means, even if it meant enlisting the support of neighbourhood gangster Saddam Hussein. The first recorded use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war was in 1982, two years into the conflict. Both sides used them, but Saddam was the first, in response to Iran’s vast manpower that had begun to turn the tide on Iraq’s initial advances. On more than one occasion, seasoned British foreign correspondents – very much the minority in the press corps - informed the British and American embassies in Baghdad of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. It was even discovered that some of Saddam’s mustard gas was delivered by British-made artillery shells (although there is no suggestion of British involvement in modifying their use). British and American diplomats refused to act on anything other than material evidence. They never sought such proof themselves, and knew full well that it was near impossible for we reporters to secure it. One journalist who tried, Farzad Bazoft of The Observer, was caught at Baghdad airport in 1989 with soil samples that would have provided crucial evidence. He was jailed, tortured, forced to sign a confession of being a spy, and executed on 15 March 1990. A crime of war Halabja was a turning-point because for the first time the evidence of chemical attack was impossible to ignore. The town had no military or economic value in itself, but control of it allowed access to a strategic road controlling a complex of water projects in north-east Iraq. The Iranians wanted to take it and it was the scene of heavy fighting. According to a suppressed CIA report mentioned in the book The Iran-Iraq War: chaos in a vacuum by former CIA political analyst Stephen Pelletiere, the Iranians did use chemical weapons in the battle around Halabja. It is certain that the town changed hands during the fighting and in a desperate attempt to fend off the Iranians, the Iraqi commanders ordered the use of mustard gas. There were at least two raids made by low-flying Iraqi aircraft spraying the gas - some Kurds claim there were more. According to Pelletiere, the CIA report indicates that Kurdish civilians were collateral damage, and were not a deliberate target of Saddam. He also suggests that many deaths were caused by a cyanide-based gas, which w[...]

The media and Africa: doing bad by doing "good"?

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 13:26:03 +0000

One of the high points of my journalistic career was standing next to Jon Snow in Makerere University's (empty) swimming-pool as we broadcast live from an evangelical rally to promote sexual abstention in Kampala. At one point Jon waded into the cheering, swinging crowd and asked a Ugandan youth: "Are you celibate?" "Oh yes!" said the happy young Christian, "I wasn't last week but I am now". An hour earlier Jon had done an interview with Richard & Judy on the same subject, bringing an audience of millions of daytime TV viewers in touch with the surreal and depressing reality of Africa and Aids in the week before the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland in July 2005 which attempted to "‘put an end to poverty" in Africa. Gosh, I thought, we really are giving them the News From Africa. But does it make any difference at all? I fear that the harder journalists try to be good, the worse the result often is. Let me try to explain.First of all I should say that Jon Snow and Channel 4 News is about as good as it gets in TV news. They have the time and resources and an editorial brief to be thoughtful and counterintuitive. But the failure of the news media to report complex issues like Africa particularly well is as much about the "quality" of liberal media as it is about the rightwing tabloids or twenty-four-hour news channels. The realisation that this is so seems to be taking root in surprising quarters: witness the report of the BBC Trust - the corporation's new oversight body, which replaced its board of governors in January 2007 - into the issue of impartiality in the BBC's coverage of politics and current affairs. Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: safeguarding impartiality in the 21st century, published on 18 June 2007, speaks of the need to recognise "new complexities" and proposes twelve "guiding principles to inform the BBC's approach to ensuring impartiality in the face of rapid technological and social change". The evidence of a problem, one that crosses broadcasting boundaries, is not hard to find. Take Unreported World on Channel 4. Each week, brave young independent journalists are seen in some unpleasant part of the globe contradicting the title of the programme. From Haiti to Darfur they dodge bullets and meet up with intimidating guerrilla leaders. Their commitment and courage is evident. Sometimes they display excellent language skills and sometimes good local knowledge. But it can end up feeling like breathless travel journalism with flak-jackets because the formula becomes dominant over analysis, reflection or context. Just because the subject is Sri Lanka or children in Côte d'Ivoire doesn't mean that it is a "progressive" or even valuable programme. By emphasising a narrative-driven structure it can become as predictable a formula as the two-minute piece on the BBC's 10 o'clock news.Charlie Beckett is director of Polis, the forum for debate and research into journalism and society at the London School of Economics and the London College of Communication. His website is herePolis launches its new report on Development, Governance and the Media: The Role of the Media in Building African Society on 27 June 2007 at the LSE The report follows a Polis conference in March 2006, held in conjunction with the BBC World Service Trust, the Open University, Concern, Panos, Communication for Social Change Consortium, Unesco UK and DfIThis is part of a well-intentioned conspiracy to report Africa, in particular, and the developing world in general, in a formulaic way. It is a formula th[...]

Ryszard Kapuœciñski: the interpreter

Tue, 30 Jan 2007 00:00:00 +0000

When Ryszard Kapuściński wrote about tyrannies and their falls, the desire for freedom and the need for tolerance, he influenced millions. Not just because of what he wrote, but how. He achieved mastery in conveying deep truths and important ideas without resorting to generalisation. He favoured simple descriptions - of a single event, a detail, a mood. He dissolved the boundary between reporting and literature, not by inserting fiction into his writing but by pouring in feeling. He elicited empathy and identification in his readers rather than mere understanding. He gathered his material by listening, always attentively. When he listened, you couldn't help but feel worthy of his attention. The trust and friendship he elicited can be seen in his photographs. His sensitivity shines through in his poems. For Kapuściński was not just a reporter. Kapuściński achieved iconic status in Poland in the mid-1970s, after publishing The Emperor. We suddenly realised that when he wrote about Africa and Latin America, he was, in fact, writing about Poland. The Emperor was about the rise and fall of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. But the real subject of the book was the court. Leaders may differ, but the attitudes and behaviour of courtiers are universal. Kapuściński's allusions to party apparatchiks and members of the politburo were subtle but obvious to every reader in Poland. Likewise, every reader abroad could recognise the posture, speech and conduct of bureaucrats everywhere, whether they were climbing up or falling from the ladder of power. Wiktor Osiatyński is a professor of comparative constitutionalism and human rights at Central European University. He is also a member of the board of the Open Society Institute. Osiatyński is the author of twenty books, including Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future, Rehab, and Citizen's Republic. In the 1970s, he worked with Ryszard Kapuściński for the Kultura weekly in Warsaw, Poland Also in openDemocracy about the work of Ryszard Kapuściński: Neal Ascherson, "Ryszard Kapuściński: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007) The uniqueness of the other Kapuściński wrote his books in weekly instalments; he needed a deadline to write. The Emperor was first published in the weekly Kultura, where we both worked in the 1970s. Once, he called in to replace a chapter that was already at the printers with one describing the Ethiopian emperor's decree to build dams on the Nile. Just two days before, the Polish party's central committee had heralded a program to regulate the Vistula river. Like Ethiopia, Poland was in the middle of a crisis. The crisis led to Solidarity and to the historic Gdańsk shipyard strike in August 1980. Most journalists at the time wrote about workers' demands and the tension of their negotiations with the government. Kapuściński was among those reporters who joined the workers. Then, instead of writing about the issues behind the strike, he wrote about the people striking. He gave a name to what was really going on, calling the protest "a revolution for dignity". Indeed, dignity soon became the essential theme of Solidarity. In the 1980s, Kapuściński did not write a major book. During martial law, Kultura was banned and there was no weekly paper to write for. He began writing a journal, eventually published in six volumes entitled Lapidarium. He also attended to a rapidly blossoming international career, which had started with the p[...]

Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world

Thu, 25 Jan 2007 00:00:00 +0000

The death of Ryszard Kapuściński on 23 January 2007 in Warsaw shocked friends, colleagues and readers all over the world. He was 74, but somehow we had all assumed that this small rugged man with the sly smile was indestructible. He had survived so much. The Soviet and then Nazi occupation of his homeland, twenty-seven (or was it twenty-eight?) revolutions and coups all over the world, escape from at least four executions and an near-lethal attack of cerebral malaria in Tanzania, even the smoke, alcohol and stress of a Polish journalist's life - none of these seemed to affect him. He grew a little quieter, as if intimidated by his own fame, but that was all. Kapuściński was a rare writer in several ways. In the first place, he was a writer who became a news-agency journalist and yet preserved his literary talent intact, producing subtle and bewitching books after a lifetime of leg-work. He managed to keep his writer's third eye open while wrestling with the agency reporter's desperate daily and nightly struggle; the battle against updates and call-backs, telex machines which break down, and locked cable offices to which nobody has the key. He could do the curt style of press-agency cables, fact-based and frill-free, and yet his imagination stayed switched on, recording for future use significant details, ironies, characters, unexpected resemblances. Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999), The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), and Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003) Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy: "From multiculturalism to where?" (August 2004) "Pope John Paul II and democracy" (April 2005)   "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (July 2005) "The victory and defeat of Solidarnoœæ" (September 2005) "Poland's interregnum" (September 2005) "Victory's lost sister – the wreck of the Implacable" (October 2005) "A carnival of stupidity" (February 2006) "Good Night, and Good Luck" (February 2006) "Torture: from regress to redress" (March 2006) "The case for pre-emption: Alan M Dershowitz reviewed" (May 2006) "Scotophobia" (28 June 2006) "Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007) From reporting to parable But he was also the last practitioner of an old genre of writing: the literary globetrotter. He was writing books and long feature pieces for readers in communist Poland, where foreign travel was the rarest of privileges. But generations before the Iron Curtain descended, the public of European countries whose culture was continental and often landlocked, rather than colonial and oceanic, were avid for exotic tales from strange places overseas. Some of these readers lived in provinces of the Habsburg empire; others - like Poland - had lost their independence and their direct channel to outside experience; others again, especially imperial Germany, were latecomers to the colonial scramble and hungry for tropical anecdotes. A throng of talented writers from central and eastern Europe took ship to provide their readers with the palm trees, crocodiles and cannibals they yearned for. The old colonial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands in particular, had been feedi[...]

The al-Jazeera revelation

Wed, 07 Dec 2005 00:00:00 +0000

The absurdity of censorship attempts is that they usually end by exposing to the audience what they seek to hide. The reaction of the British government to the Mirror report about George W Bush and al-Jazeera is a perfect illustration. If Tony Blair’s office had wanted to confirm the newspaper’s claim – that a memo of a meeting between the United States president and the British prime minister indicated that Bush wished to bomb the Qatar-based broadcaster – it would have reacted in precisely the same way. This is self-defeating as well as heavy-handed: for in mobilising an exceptional legal arsenal to suppress the memo and prosecute those involved in its circulation, the British government gave credibility to a scoop published in a tabloid renowned for its animosity towards the current American administration. Saleh Bechir is a Tunisian writer based in Rome. His website is here Also by Saleh Bechir (with Hazem Saghieh) in openDemocracy, "The 'Muslim community': a European invention" (October 2005) More in openDemocracy about al-Jazeera: Fuad Nahdi, “Doublespeak: Islam and the media” (April 2003) James Curran & David Elstein, “Paradox of freedom on the media frontline” (October 2001) Hazem Saghieh, “Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes” (June 2004) If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue The details of the memo remain to be established. What does seem plausible is that President Bush did indeed contemplate a warlike action against an Arabic television channel, whose headquarters are the property of an allied government and situated on its territory. This prospect fortunately has not happened, and therefore has not become another instrument in America’s campaign against “terrorism” or for “the promotion of democracy” in the middle east. At the same time, the very idea that it might or could happen – that the thought crossed the mind and the utterance crossed the lips of the most powerful leader in the world – is emblematic of a drifting “war on terror” which endlessly violates its own justifications. This war, supposedly pursued in the name of noble democratic ideals, has in fact flouted them, and exposed them as untruthful pretexts for its true imperial goals. From this point of view, and not prejudging its military or political outcome, the war is already a failure. From Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib, from the CIA “black sites” in Europe to the use of white phosphorus on the civilians of Fallujah, the American war has become unbearable. These deeds, if committed by any other “rogue state”, would be considered war crimes or crimes against humanity. True, there is no such thing as a “clean war”. But Bush’s war is self-polluted by the blatant contradictions between its claimed motivations and its reality. The al-Jazeera case is a symptomatic illustration. As controversial as the TV channel may be, nothing could justify such a radical “criticism” of the kind contemplated by the American president. The broadcasting organisation is ultimately nothing but a medium of information, one that may be disliked but that cannot be assimilated to any military objective. Except, perhaps, through the current American leadership’s vision that sees its relation with the outside world – and particularly the “greater middle east” – through[...]

The numbers game: death, media, and the public

Wed, 05 Oct 2005 23:00:00 +0000

As hurricanes Katrina and Rita retreat and some ordering of the after-effects takes place, the exact scale of what happened is still unclear. The reporting of the tragedies is also being scrutinised. Among the topics the reporting raised is social inequality, and the ways in which modern, man-encouraged catastrophes have man-made effects. Hurricanes, like famines, produce precise maps of disadvantage, which make public usually hidden discrimination. The media, in reporting Katrina, first told us that the hurricane “was not as bad as expected” when the water was surging into New Orleans; some outlets later described white people “foraging” for goods while black people were described as “looters”. The media coverage also highlighted the more subtle problem of audiences’ sometimes casual disinterest in any group that looks like a victim. Surely, one reason people used their mobiles so effectively to take images in the July 2005 bombings in London was that reporting on an event (which is what everyone can now do) meant regaining some control over it: people stopped being merely victims. The response of many viewers to this trend has a chilling element: simultaneously feeling close to disasters because they can now be seen, yet feeling distanced because they are watched on a screen, part of the ongoing litany of disasters. Jean Seaton is professor of media studies at Westminster University. She is co-author (with James Curran) of Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (5th edition, 1997) and official historian of the BBC. Her most recent book is Carnage and the Media: The Making and Breaking of News about Violence (Penguin 2005) Also in openDemocracy, our Journalism & War debate If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all Reported but uncounted Lying around the soggy remains of the cities that have been devastated are the wrecks of discarded statistics. Were there 20,000 people in the New Orleans Superbowl or 5,000? How many people were shot: four or 120? How many died in the hospitals – despite heroic medical efforts – simply because there was no power and no water: 300 or 600? Did most people escape or not? How long is a traffic jam with 500,000 people in it? Can you really evacuate 2 million people? Why at first was it reported that 10,000 people had died when the final death toll seems to have been around 1,000? If most people escaped, was it a success rather than a failure? And, more provocatively, was the death count the only – or indeed the most important – thing in the story? So far, at least, the mortality figures have been coming down from initial huge estimates and will now slowly creep up – but not greatly. Unlike the the death toll of the Asian tsunami, the final figure will not be unimaginably high. But how do we get our minds around the order of magnitude the disaster represents? Is it less of a story if fewer people died? There are many reasons for the numbers to change – not least that nobody had the slightest idea of how to begin to estimate the impact of the catastrophe; they had only their eyes and, as it turned out their eyes were not necessarily reliable. It was chaos, and critically for modern eyes, it looked on television screens like a foreign, other, biblical Armageddon. Actually it reminded me of JG Ballard’s early science fiction worlds[...]

Guatemala: journalism under pressure

Sun, 25 Sep 2005 23:00:00 +0000

I would like to start by thanking you all for your presence at this ceremony and to Amnesty International for the honour of this recognition. I would like to share this honour with all Guatemalan journalists who work under very difficult conditions in my country and who constantly defend their right to freedom of expression and the right of the Guatemalan people to information and to denounce violations of their rights. I would also like to honour all the human-rights defenders whose work has been persecuted, discredited and in some cases, criminalised.The work of the Guatemalan journalist Marielos Monzón has been recognised by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Amnesty International. One cannot understand my story without understanding the general context in which Guatemalans live, both in the past and today. My work is intimately related to the story of thousands of fellow Guatemalans who themselves suffered the horrors of the war and who seek reconciliation through truth and justice. The reconstruction of historical memory of the people is the only way of guaranteeing that the past does not repeat itself. 250,000 deaths, 50,000 disappeared and more than a million internally displaced was the result of the conflict which lasted for decades, and which bled the country, ripped apart the social fabric and still today takes its victims. Despite the fact that the peace accords were signed in 1996, the terror structures remain intact, the civilian governments have been incapable of dismantling the clandestine and illegal groups which commit assassinations, kidnappings and forced disappearances with impunity and which have converted Guatemala into a territory for organised crime and drug trafficking. I would also add to this the continuing injustice and inequality in the distribution of income, land and wealth, which has given Guatemala the second highest indices of inequality in Latin America – a situation which is sure to worsen with the implementation of the Central America Free Trade Agreement. The peace continues to take its victims of a conflict still unresolved in its most profound structures. I am referring to the boys and girls who die every five minutes from chronic malnutrition or another related illness; to the 1,800 women killed in the last four years, or to the 284 attacks against organisations and human-rights defenders, including against us journalists. Although one cannot hold the government responsible for all the attacks and killings, as one could in the past, it remains clear that these groups act with the tacit knowledge of the state, which does not want to or cannot dismantle them, confront them and bring them to justice. Injustice continues to be the best ally of this dark power, which has tentacles in all three state powers and which is linked to drug trafficking, corruption, organised crime and the attacks against women, young people, human-rights activists and journalists. I’m telling you all this, because only this way can I explain my conviction to continue working in journalism – as a vehicle for the voice of those who they have wanted to silence, as a space to denounce the issues and actors who wish to remain invisible, as an opportunity for the victims to tell their stories, as a tool of investigation that permits us to know what happened and who ordered it. I receive this recognition with the conviction that my work would not be possible without the help of my journalist colleagues, who e[...]

John Humphrys and the BBC's problem

Tue, 13 Sep 2005 23:00:00 +0000

The BBC prides itself on its reputation for impartiality and objectivity – an image of itself not shared by some overseas listeners and viewers, who judge it as either too close to government (ask your friends in Dublin or Paris) or too critical (ask your friends in Washington or Warsaw). Of course, the BBC itself will cite such contrary views as proof of its independence and even-handedness. Yet the recent debate over an unscripted speech by one of the BBC’s most tenacious interviewers John Humphrys (oddly enough, on a cruise ship hosting a conference for PR executives) has mostly missed the point. The organisers of the event foolishly provided their own video of the speech (made without Humphrys’ knowledge) to a Downing Street advisor, Tim Allan, who promptly fed a transcript to a journalist on the Times, Tom Baldwin, whose reputation as a Blair supporter goes back many years. The ensuing 2 September splash in the Times focused on some gentle mockery of current or former British government ministers (Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson) and the view that some politicians and ministers have no compunction about lying. Humphrys also asserted that the BBC had been substantially correct in its reporting of the notorious Iraq dossiers, despite the contrary conclusions of Lord Hutton’s inquiry, which triggered the resignations of the BBC’s chairman and director-general in January 2004. openDemocracy writers examine the conflict between the BBC and the British government over the Iraq war: David Elstein, “Hutton and the BBC” (January 2004) Tom Bentley, “Tall tales and home truths” (February 2004) John Lloyd, “Media power: telling truths to ourselves” (February 2004) David Marquand, “Tony Blair and Iraq: a public tragedy” (February 2004) If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all A question of politics Even as the Times retreated, with a leader column noting that there was nothing in the speech worth worrying about, the BBC’s chairman since April 2004, Michael Grade, called for a full report. The BBC’s director-general, Mark Thompson, commissioned this from his deputy, and received it within days. It concluded that Humphrys’ remarks had been injudicious, and might have risked putting his impartiality (though not the BBC’s) into question. This was conveyed to Humphrys in a telephone call, and the matter was seemingly put to rest. Yet if the BBC had little choice but to chide its star radio presenter, and try to prove that instinctive defensiveness in response to challenges to its journalism was firmly in the post-Hutton past, it was the silence from Downing Street that was most chilling. No minister chided Tim Allan for his egregious pursuit of Humphrys, whose scalp was one of the few the government had not captured in the fall-out from Hutton. Allan criticised Humphrys for calling all ministers liars in his speech (he actually only implied some were) – yet just a few weeks earlier, a former Blairite secretary of state, Stephen Byers, had not only admitted lying to parliament over his forcing a private company (Railtrack) into administration, but could not even remember why he had done so: suggesting that this lie was not so unusual that it was etched in his memory. The decline in the quality of political debate in [...]

The Thing

Thu, 12 Feb 2004 00:00:00 +0000

The decision of the British government, led by prime minister Tony Blair, to support the United States’s preparations to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was extremely controversial in the country. There was massive popular protest and bitter criticism in the press and broadcasting media. The government tried to win public opinion to its argument that the Iraqi regime – through its remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and active programmes to develop those weapons – was a clear and present danger to Britain as well as to its region. In September 2002, the government published a dossier on Iraq’s WMD. In a foreword, Tony Blair wrote: “What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons.” Before, during and after the war of March-April 2003, the reliability and use of this “intelligence” (secret information) lay at the heart of debate about the war’s justification, purpose and legality. The political atmosphere in Britain became more tense, public opinion more animated, media coverage more frenzied. “What name to give such a government it is difficult to say. It is like nothing that ever was heard of before. It is neither a monarchy, an aristocracy, nor a democracy…Such is the government of England; such is the thing which has been able to bribe one half of Europe to oppress the other half.” [William Cobbett, Register 33 (1818)] One of the British government’s most respected advisers on Iraq’s WMD, an experienced weapons scientist who had worked with the United Nations to disarm Iraq during the 1990s, was the microbiologist David Kelly. As part of his job with the ministry of defence, he had regularly briefed journalists on an unattributable basis. On 22 May, he met and talked to a BBC radio journalist called Andrew Gilligan in a London hotel. On 29 May, Andrew Gilligan alleged on the BBC’s flagship morning radio programme that the British government knew that a key piece of intelligence information presented to the public in the September 2002 dossier – that Saddam possessed WMD that could be launched within 45 minutes – was false. Gilligan sourced this allegation to “one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier”. On 1 June, a newspaper hostile to the government published an article by Gilligan accusing Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s chief of communications, of “sexing up” (embellishing) the dossier. Campbell expressed outrage at the accusation of deceit, and was publicly scathing in criticism of the BBC’s coverage of the issue. Over the next month, both government officials and media engaged in strenuous efforts to identify the source of Gilligan’s allegations. David Kelly confided to his superiors that he had spoken to Gilligan, but disputed the latter’s version of their conversation. Kelly’s name gradually became known to senior government, civil service, and intelligence officials, and to BBC executives. After his name entered the public domain, Kelly was interviewed on 15 July by the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of parliament. In a strained, televised encounter, he denied being the source of Andrew Gilligan’s claim about Alastair Campbell’s role in the September 2002 dossier. “Their reactions ar[...]

Tall tales and home truths

Mon, 09 Feb 2004 00:00:00 +0000

The furious public argument swirling around British political and media institutions for the past year has often seemed a bizarre illustration of what a famous historian once called “The Peculiarities of the English”. The core of the argument, Britain’s role in the Iraq war of 2003, is clear. But surrounding it is a kaleidoscope of figures – spies, scientists, and journalists; BBC executives, editors, and broadcasters; senior civil servants, politicians, and judges – who appear to be living out the metaphor of Matthew Arnold’s great poem Dover Beach: “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night”. At times it has felt as if Britain’s public life is having a nervous breakdown – and that its angry but also perplexed citizens are reduced, “as on a darkling plain”, to being spectators rather than participants in their own drama. Also in David Marquand on a collapse of the public realm; John Lloyd on journalism’s crisis; David Elstein on the BBC’s next steps; Anthony Barnett on Lord Hutton and the psychology of power; Douglas Murray on the wrong inquiry The confusion extends even to how we describe what has been happening. Is it about Tony Blair, the prime minister who ordered Britain to war? David Kelly, the weapons scientist whose suicide provoked a public inquiry? Lord Hutton, the senior judge whose inquiry report cleared Blair and senior officials of blame? The BBC, whose journalism and management were sharply criticised in the report, leading to the resignations of its leading figures? Or is it about the deformity of Britain’s public life itself, and the way those involved in it tell stories to and about each other? Keeping in line The most recent chapter in the argument has focused on the report of the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly. Yet so much has already been said and written about Hutton that, less than two weeks after the report’s publication on 28 January, it is becoming hard to remember the flavour of the politics and media debate even immediately before it. One reason for this instant amnesia is that the prevailing media narrative – not just a combination of the different editorial lines of different broadcasters and newspapers, but the set of parameters and assumptions within which these individual stories are being crafted – has changed so quickly since Lord Hutton delivered his verdict. Before the report arrived, this framing narrative presented a genuine threat to Tony Blair, a prime minister who has gained a reputation for flexible resilience in the face of impending political doom. As such, it dramatised politics, gave a focus to daily journalism, and created a cliffhanger around which all the observers of the performance could organise their opinions. In the event, the report’s unexpected conclusions (government in clean hands shocker!) were met by a sudden, dramatic change of media script. The report was excoriated as a “whitewash”, an unpardonable exoneration of Blair. The very rapidity of this shift illustrates the depth of suspicion and resentment that government under New Labour has managed to attract. True, those who are still disenchanted about the way in which Blair led Britain to war in Iraq, the report was nev[...]

Re-presenting Africa: an interview with Sorious Samura

Fri, 06 Feb 2004 00:00:00 +0000

openDemocracy: How do you think the western media portray Africa? How did you start to think about your own work in relation to that? Sorious Samura: When I saw documentaries about Africa made by, say, the BBC in the poorest and most filthy-looking countries I thought: yes, it’s true, these things need to be exposed. But what about the good things that were happening? I always wanted to see the other sides of our continent being shown. Also on Caspar Melville's profile on Sorius Samura I was always full of stories about the continent – who, what, why, how. I grew up in Sierra Leone. There was no proper local media. We were entirely dependent on international media like the BBC and CNN; I never saw the full picture, or the proper context, in stories about Africa. I wanted to tell the African story from within to the world beyond. The western media find it very hard to say what is really going on – they are hamstrung by post-colonial guilt, by the danger of being accused of racism or imperialism. I am not. In Africa I can point fingers, I can blame the Africans who are responsible, I can condemn people like Yoweri Museveni. I get away with it because I’m an African, and I can do likewise with the west. openDemocracy: We published an article by the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. He says that while he has an audience in the west he is making films for Africa. Are you telling Africa’s story to the west or to Africa? Sorious Samura: Both. It was a blessing for me that my footage of what was happening in Freetown was first aired by CNN. CNN is like the world’s biggest fish for us. In Somalia, there is almost no electricity but they watch CNN on satellite. Surviving Hunger When I was working on Return to Freetown. I went to Kono in Sierra Leone, which was controlled by the rebels. They had all already seen Cry Freetown. They had no shoes but they had satellite. It is appearing on CNN – this so-called western media – that actually brought me on TV in Africa, and gained me the respect of Africans. openDemocracy: But you declined a job offer with both CNN and the BBC. Why was that? Sorious Samura: Well, their convention is the three-minute report from the region, and that is something I have always condemned. Africa is such a big continent and these short reports are just inadequate for giving the background and context of a story. I insisted that I want to continue with Insight News TV because they allow me the space, hour-long programmes, really to explore an issue. When I first came to Insight with the footage for Cry Freetown, the director, Ron McCullagh, just said to me: “You started it, it’s your story, you tell it.” That for me is everything. War and balance openDemocracy: We have been debating the question of balance in relation to reporting war. A central issue has been the difference between objectivity and advocacy. How do you negotiate between these? Sorious Samura: I don’t think any journalist will ever be able to cover a war and tell a balanced story. With the rebels in Freetown, I would have loved to film certain things, but I had to play by their rules. It was the same situation with the peacekeepers. Most stories in Africa depend on who you’re working with. That’s Africa. If you cross the line you lose your livelihood, your inco[...]

How should the BBC be regulated?

Thu, 05 Feb 2004 00:00:00 +0000

It took slightly longer than 45 minutes. By the time Lord Hutton had finished reading his report last Wednesday, it was clear that the BBC (or the Beeb, as it is known) had come out of the Hutton “whitewash” with some serious stains. British press reaction was mixed: according to the best selling British newspaper (pro-war) The Sun, the BBC was clearly at fault for everything (ever), whilst support for the Corporation came from some surprising sources, including even the hitherto anti-all-things-Beeb The Daily Mail. Within hours the Corporation’s chairman, Gavyn Davies, had resigned and director-general Greg Dyke walked to the end of the plank only to be pushed the next morning. Last to go was Andrew Gilligan. It was Gilligan’s ‘unfounded’ report and scoop-hunting journalism on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, and the BBC’s reaction to the complaints it triggered, that lay at the heart of Lord Hutton’s critique. What’s wrong with the BBC? Despite disagreement around the justifications for Hutton’s conclusions, most commentators identified the crucial issue for the BBC as a question of governance rather than simply a single journalist in his pyjamas (Gilligan delivered his report unscripted, live to air, from his bedroom). Something has to change. Exactly what was less clear. David Elstein’s perceptive survey of the events of last week identifies two key problems. The first is the BBC’s system of self-regulation that leads to ‘arrogance and dismissiveness’ in responding to complaints. The second problem is the ‘sheer size and dominance of the BBC that have helped make the BBC a target rather than a bulwark’. This is what Richard Collins has described as the Goldilocks problem – how do we know how much BBC is enough? David Elstein seems to suggest that it was the BBC’s size and dominance, rather than its reputation for impartiality, accuracy and high levels of public trust, which led the government to complain to the BBC rather than the Mail on Sunday. It may be combination of both. It is yet to be proven whether the self-regulatory newspapers are any less arrogant and dismissive than the BBC when dealing with complaints. David Marquand provides a third critique of the BBC. He argues that the BBC should not employ journalists, ‘scoop-hunters’, like Andrew Gilligan. This is a subtle and more intelligent version of the “dumbing-down” critique. The BBC has long been held to be chasing audiences instead of providing a public service – too much Fame Academy, not enough Farming Today - a process that sped up under Greg Dyke’s leadership, according to former chief regulator Patricia Hodgson. As David Elstein has identified elsewhere, whilst the BBC is funded by a poll tax, it has had to both chase ratings to justify the tax to the public and provide the unpopular public service programming that the tax is supposed to fund. The bigger and bigger picture The Hutton report has thrown into sharp relief long-term debates around the future of the BBC. Technological advance has presented a fundamental challenge to the ethic of public service broadcasting. The increase in available television channels has enabled the market to provide more choice for viewers, thus increasing competition for eyeballs. Cruci[...]

Media power: telling truths to ourselves

Wed, 04 Feb 2004 00:00:00 +0000

What is a news story? Journalists are (sometimes) taught the essentials of news- gathering, writing and broadcasting when they take journalism courses: but those who make it onto national newspapers and TV channels are inducted into a different process. They learn – if they have not already intuited - what constitutes news for the organisation of which they are part; and that is quite different from the relatively high-minded, information-based stuff they learn at college. News stories in the United Kingdom have become, over the last ten years, both very specific and very similar. They have retreated from information: they have become obsessed with gaining power. The best news for the UK national media is anti-establishment news. The best hunting grounds for anti-establishment news are the royal family; the Church of England; the government and politicians. Other areas include the police; the European Commission and European Parliament; regional and local authorities: though none of these has the sheer power of the top three. More on openDemocracy about journalism and politics after the Hutton report: David Marquand on a very British tragedy, David Elstein on the BBC’s future, Douglas Murray on press cynicism, and Anthony Barnett on control freaks Companies, in the UK, are in a lower category still. In large part because they are covered by specialised business reporters who don’t often “do” scandal (sometimes to their retrospective chagrin, when a spectacular collapse reveals what they had long missed), and also because companies are more prone to sue than the top three – who usually must grimace and bear it. The problem with laser-guided journalism Yet the best reporting - that is, reporting which has a chance of approaching the truth - is done with an astringent human sympathy. It involves a narrative which can discriminate between sympathy and sentimentality, and which does not pretend to sympathy when it is in fact an obeisance to power – still and always a prime journalistic temptation, especially when that power is illiberal to one degree or another. It is that journalism which takes as its task the illumination of its subject, from within as well as from the outside. ‘From within’ doesn’t mean the private life: on the contrary, private life shouldn’t be touched by journalism, except with the express volition of the person who wishes to explore his or her private life: or in these rare occurrences – the British monarchy’s behaviour is one – in which the private, that is often sexual, arrangements actually have a bearing on public life. Instead, the reporter should try to enter into what he or she deduces is the ‘inner public’ life of the subject: that is, seeking to understand what the choices really might be, and what life really is like for the person described. Orville Schell, dean of the journalism school at the University of California says that the New Yorker training he experienced led its writers to adopt “a basic presumption that you’ll find some fundamental empathy with your subject. You could be critical, but to write from a perspective of mockery, disdain or overblown cynicism is dangerous…the whole point was to try to find where you connected with your topic and cared about i[...]

Tony Blair and Iraq: a public tragedy

Mon, 02 Feb 2004 00:00:00 +0000

Lord Hutton’s now notorious report on the circumstances surrounding the death of the British government weapons scientist David Kelly, has been greeted with an unprecedented chorus of disdain. Almost without exception press commentators have denounced it as a whitewash. If the polls are any guide, the public shares their view. It is easy to see why. The report exonerated the leading officials involved in the affair – not just of deliberate deceit, but of questionable conduct of any kind: the prime minister; other government ministers; the prime minister’s staff at Number 10 Downing Street; the bureaucrats of the ministry of defence; and the spymasters on the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). The BBC, on the other hand, was savagely criticised, not just for giving airtime to a false allegation, but for gross editorial and managerial negligence. Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, the chairman and chief executive of the BBC, have been forced to walk the plank, while Tony Blair smirks beneath a righteous halo. Also on openDemocracy: David Elstein on lessons for the BBC, Douglas Murray on the wrong inquiry, and Anthony Barnett cracks Alastair Campbell’s code Given that the whole affair stems from Blair’s insistence on leading the country into a war of dubious legality, whose ostensible justification has turned out to be false, this seems, to put it mildly, a little odd. Planet Hutton, it seems, is a very different place from Planet Earth. But the charge of whitewash misses the point. Any hopes that Hutton may have had to whitewash the government have not been fulfilled. What he has done – no doubt without realising it – is to throw a vivid shaft of light on a developing crisis of the British state and public realm. A malaise in the public realm As I try to show in my new book, Decline of the Public: the hollowing-out of citizenship (Polity Press, 2004) this crisis – whose roots lie deep in Britain’s history – has accelerated sharply under Tony Blair. One of its most depressing aspects is, indeed, the current culture of the BBC. But the question of whether or not Andrew Gilligan – the Today journalist whose early-morning radio allegation of deliberate political deception set off the chain of events leading to the Hutton report – was subject to adequate editorial control, is a red herring. The real point is that a professional, public-service broadcasting organisation, with an overriding duty to pursue the public interest by maintaining scrupulous accuracy in its news output while steadfastly holding the ring for free comment, had no business employing Gilligan in the first place. Gilligan was a scoop-hunter, the journalistic equivalent of a pig hunting for truffles in the clammy soil of south-west France. When he had a scoop (or apparent scoop) to masticate, nothing else mattered – not the long-term reputation and standing of the BBC, still less loyalty to his source. The only thing that counted was to hit the headlines. Scoop-hunting à la Gilligan is not an ornament of a free press, as a depressingly large number of journalistic commentators seem to think. It is a cancer gnawing at its entrails. And it is utterly at variance with the public service ethic that the BBC is supposed to embody. Lord Hutto[...]

The Campbell Code

Thu, 29 Jan 2004 00:00:00 +0000

The Hutton report on the death of a British scientist blames the BBC and clears Tony Blair, but misses the larger truth of the Iraq weapons affair: the British government’s system of command and control. The conclusion of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the British weapons inspector David Kelly has coincided with the call by David Kay for a “fundamental fault analysis” into the intelligence used to justify the coalition’s war on Saddam Hussein. Kay has just resigned from leading the United States-led Iraq Survey Group weapons inspection team in Iraq. He was testifying before the US Senate. The issues in play are significant: truth (and lies), government judgment (and its spin), media investigation (and the lack of it), the choice of war and the character of democratic government. In some countries, leaders put a vice on everything. In Italy, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi owns and controls most of the television media and has obliged satire to be broadcast without sound. In Russia, President Putin appears confident in his use of even more direct methods to ensure he enjoys good coverage. In Britain, however, the media enjoys a genuine autonomy. It is free in at least two ways. First, the way of Rupert Murdoch. Newspapers – and not just the tabloids – feel free to propagate their own attitudes, irrespective of fact or argument, as they chase circulation through sensationalism. A Daily Express editorial memo which called on its journalists to find regular sex stories involving (among others) politicians, because these were its news values, revealed the beast at its worst. A corrosive journalism regards its role as to expose. To report an official success or a complex policy is ‘boring’; it presumes that it is the honest ‘voice of the people’ and all else stinks. It is an attitude that disables public culture and democracy. The BBC represents the second kind of freedom. As a public service broadcaster it stakes out an independence of party that is nonetheless semi-official. Its words carry special weight, not just of authority but also of a different, more responsible culture that claims to be, if not truthful, then balanced. The Hutton report launches a devastating attack on the internal administration of this culture by the BBC. Arguably, the BBC was finally being run by people who had a commitment to democracy rather than elitism. But when this commitment was fused with its old establishment complacency, the BBC become unable to distinguish between probing for the truth behind government policy and the slack populism of the UK’s new journalism. David Elstein assesses the results. But the defining clash which led to the Hutton Inquiry was between the BBC and the prime minister’s then head of communications, Alastair Campbell. Campbell’s exceptional influence - when a press officer becomes more important than a Cabinet minister – was first identified by Peter Oborne in a pioneering biography. The relationship between media power and government power in contemporary representative democracies will become more important. From migration to deterrence, the doctrine of ‘pre-emption’ means that the way governments access risk, take decisions and present the[...]

Hutton and the BBC

Thu, 29 Jan 2004 00:00:00 +0000

Even 24 hours after receiving the report of the Hutton inquiry released on 28 January, the BBC was still visibly in a state of shock. The director-general, Greg Dyke, first recorded an enigmatic holding statement, rather than face the world’s news media. In it, he questioned the severity of the verdict Lord Hutton had passed on the BBC, and denied there would be any further comment. The next day, he resigned, admitting the BBC’s “errors of judgment” and affirming the need for “closure”. In an email to all BBC staff, he said: “it will be hard to draw a line under this whole affair while I am still here”. Within minutes of Dyke’s initial reaction, his chairman, Gavyn Davies, had resigned, issuing as he did so a series of barbed questions to Hutton, but remarking that “you cannot choose your own umpire”. It was a curious choice of phrase. For much of the previous four years, the BBC had vehemently defended its unique regulatory structure – whereby a Board of Governors both controls the BBC and then passes judgment on its performance – against a rising tide of opinion that it should fall under the aegis of the new industry regulator, Ofcom (the Office of Communications), like all other UK broadcasters.See Anthony Barnett’s Editor’s Note on the part Alastair Campbell played in the affairBy the time the current BBC royal charter expires in 2006, this arrangement will have lasted eighty years. The BBC’s unique status and strength are often attributed to the complete independence of the governors (as well as to the licence fee funding system that supposedly insulates the BBC from direct governmental pressure). But what might have suited the early 20th century is increasingly anachronistic in an age of stricter corporate accountability. Digging for defeat The Hutton report is widely regarded as blinkered and unfair, in castigating the BBC whilst letting ministers and civil servants off the hook. Dyke and Davies are understandably astonished that the overwhelming evidence of the government deliberately misleading the public about the Iraqi threat – much of it submitted in irrefutable testimony and documents to Hutton – was completely ignored in his verdict. Nor was the enormous public service performed by the BBC in opening up the truth about the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction acknowledged by Hutton. Yet it would be a mistake to allow this frustration, or the widespread admiration of the BBC as an institution, to blind us to the simple truth. What Hutton identified as faults in the BBC’s reporting and editorial controls was spot on. There was a series of failures, journalistic, editorial, managerial, presentational and gubernatorial, which resulted in the most damaging verdict on the BBC in its history. It could so easily have been avoided. The editor of the BBC radio programme where the entire saga originated, Today, knew that his defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, was an unconventional reporter, operating as a lone wolf, rarely in the office. His despatches from Baghdad after the war, cataloguing Iraqi frustrations and coalition missteps, had infuriated Downing Street, triggering man[...]

Hutton - the wrong inquiry

Thu, 29 Jan 2004 00:00:00 +0000

The terms of the Hutton Inquiry – set up by the British government in July 2003 in the aftermath of the death of a distinguished biological weapons scientist and inspector – were made clear at the outset. The task given to Lord Hutton was “...urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly.” It is a mark of these litigious and conspiracy-theory-ridden times that such a task was given to one of the United Kingdom’s senior legal officials, a distinguished Law Lord, to perform. The case of David Kelly was never a case for a Law Lord: it was a case for a coroner. Doing a coroner’s job, Lord Hutton delivered his verdict loud and clear in the report he published on 28 January 2004 (paragraphs 14 and 467): “I am satisfied that Dr Kelly took his own life.” That, one should have thought, is that. A man killed himself: a tragedy for his family, certainly, but hardly a case for a full-scale judicial inquiry involving the prime minister, cabinet ministers and heads of the intelligence services, MI5 and MI6. But then something of Alice in Wonderland and The Emperor’s New Clothes has permeated this inquiry. The one thing which is most obvious has been the one thing nobody has been saying – David Kelly killed himself. Even publicity-seeking Guardian letter-writers ought to recognise the validity of Lord Hutton’s reasons for this considered and surely conclusive verdict. If we accept – as all but deranged conspiracists now do – that the hand that held the knife was Kelly’s own, what on earth was there ever to investigate? Ordering an inquiry into why a man has killed himself is like ordering an inquiry not into whether, but why a person murdered someone. Such things are beyond the fullest understanding of psychologists, let alone judges, and the only person who could have given us the answer on this one was dead before the inquiry began.Read Anthony Barnett on Alastair Campbell's role, and David Elstein on the implications for the BBCSo what was this inquiry for? Some people made the mistake of thinking that this inquiry was “the big one” – that in the Royal Courts of Justice, the reasons for Britain going to war would be investigated. For those of us who attended, it was plain from the outset why so many members of the public queued to watch. This was to be the anti-war lobby’s judicial revenge: from the courts, Lord Hutton would do the job the marchers had sought to do on the streets. This was to be their Watergate – when an arrogant government seen as intent on war would finally be brought to book. This wasn’t their inquiry. It was made clear at the outset and again in the final report, that the issue of the existence or non-existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, like the issue of the reliability of intelligence relating to them, was “not one which falls within [the] terms of reference (para 9).” If anyone thought the Hutton inquiry was about why Britain went to war, they hadn’t read the first piece of paper about it. And if they say now, as many are bound to, that this was some kind of whitewash, then they don’t kno[...]

The nasty truth about the noble lie

Wed, 15 Oct 2003 23:00:00 +0000

For twenty years essayists have ventured to ask if George Orwell’s vision for Nineteen Eighty-four is coming true. The answers have been as varied as the writers and the features of Oceania, Orwell’s fictional nation, they’ve chosen to consider. Take a piece on surveillance by cyber novelist William Gibson for the New York Times (June 2003). Cameras are now cheap, miniaturised and, courtesy of local government, ubiquitous. Constant surveillance fits the classic definition of ‘Big Brother’. Yet Gibson argues that the market has headed off dystopia. Cameras work both ways, as the Rodney King affair showed, and cheap electronics makes every citizen a watchdog. I think Gibson is right about surveillance, but let’s not dismiss the case for 1984. Two-way TVs are a nasty thought (unless you’re a paid Nielsen family), but far more insidious forces were at work in Oceania’s media, particularly in its portrayal of war. All is fair in war There was a time when war meant an armed conflict between two nations. War was an existential threat, and called for extraordinary actions that range from killing enemies to killing the truth. Even politicians remind us that “truth is the first casualty of war”, harking back to Plato’s doctrine of the “noble lie”. Noble lies run headlong into journalistic ethics, which are based on the opposite principle: that society works best when based on truth. How do we decide which of these principles is right? There’s no magic formula for ethics, so I would argue that the answer depends on your political preferences. There are no givens in life, but by unpacking some of these issues, we can define the proper role of journalists, particularly in times of war. Orwell’s famous novel is helpful here because war was a permanent condition of Oceania. People suspend their habitual ethics during war. Mild-mannered liberals may kill, lie and follow absolute leaders when threatened. The question is: how far this should go? Plato despised democracy, and he expected leaders to weave noble lies for the greater good. The contemporary political relevance of the idea of the ‘noble lie’ is explored in relation to the powerful cadre of neo-conservatives influenced by Leo Strauss (for whom Plato’s anti-democratic dictums are fundamental) by Danny Postel’s conversation with Shadia Drury, elsewhere in this edition of openDemocracy. Citizens of democracies have no such expectation, because we are, presumably, the leaders, and only an informed citizenry can make good decisions. As Des Freedman points out in “Witnessing Whose Truth?”, journalists have been willing to suspend their objectivity during times of war, essentially abandoning democratic values for a temporary aristocracy. Freedman notes that the ‘embedded’ reporters of the recent Gulf war are nothing new; they are simply the most obvious examples of a media business that operates in a larger context of obligations, values and financial relationships. Winning hearts and minds Democratic polities have been willing to suspend individual rights during war, and war has been defined as[...]

The perfect storm? The American media and Iraq

Wed, 27 Aug 2003 23:00:00 +0000

If the first Iraq war of 1991 was dubbed Desert Storm, the second might be called Perfect Storm. The run-up to the 2003 war witnessed an extraordinary convergence of factors that produced near-perfect journalistic participation in government propaganda operations. What comes now, in the aftermath of a messy military occupation clouded by reports of deceptions or exaggerations willingly passed on by an uncritical media, may well be another matter. I would not be surprised to see the press “beast” turn angrily against its former feeders. This turn, if it comes, could not however take place without the first chapter – the ‘success’ of the war itself and its presentation. This chapter began on 11 September 2001, and ends with George W. Bush’s dramatised tail-hook landing of 1 May 2003 on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln – the Top Gun moment in which Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”. “The battle of Iraq”, he added, “is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001, and still goes on.” On a scale from one to ten – if ‘one’ is rigorously sceptical and ‘ten’ supine – Perfect Storm scored ten out of ten, far exceeding the already impressive levels of press complicity achieved in the first Iraq war. In 1991, it is fair to say that some degree of mediated policy deliberation occurred. At least this was the conclusion of a group of us who studied the media coverage of that war and wrote Taken by Storm (Chicago, 1994 ) based on that research. The coverage was flawed because the press remained dependent on strategic communication emanating from the administration and from Congress. But some tough questioning did happen. This time, the level of mediated public deliberation was so diminished as to make the preponderance of journalism little more than an instrumental extension – a sort of propaganda helper – of the strategic communication goals of the administration. With few notable exceptions, the press took a pass on its fourth estate prerogatives. Posing the hard questions, testing the administrations logic and execution at every point, remaining sceptical – all this was drowned in a sea of waving flags and gung-ho celebrations of military technology. This result was ‘overdetermined’ by at least ten factors that converged in Perfect Storm fashion. These ten factors pushed the press pack to write stories that seldom contested administration framing even though huge gaps in the credibility of that framing were available to knowledgeable reporters at the time. [Evidence to support this claim can be found in Bob Entman’s forthcoming book, Projections of Power (Chicago, 2004)]. Here then, are the top ten factors that created this perfect propaganda storm. 1.9/11 happened The national public was softened by those horrific events to accept almost anything that might produce ‘closure’, leading to an amazing assault on civil liberties on the domestic front, along with the rise of unabashed empire discourse from those (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Dick C[...]

Dreams of authenticity: war, TV, and the Chechen mask

Tue, 19 Aug 2003 23:00:00 +0000

How sensitive they must be, these folk from Swiss TV! Here they are, in the rubble of Grozny, filming the heartrending image of a girl building a dolls’ house out of the debris! With delicate artistry, they select this scene to close their documentary on the Chechen war, as a reminder of just how godforsaken Chechnya - and this girl - really are. Who can they be? And are they so sensitive after all? A profession of uncaring Filming, even in war zones, is a job like any other. Media workers do not have to swear an oath to be sentimental humanists. You try to survive and protect yourself as best you can. You attempt to stay true to yourself. Yet from one report to the next, the world seems more and more the same. There are no bonuses for caring written into your contract. The image of professional, objective journalism is not helped by the act of giving a hen to an old woman wearing a burned dress in the bombed village of Samashki. Besides, it would hardly be practical to get a receipt for the chicken, and Zurich does not pay expenses without receipts. You can’t really shell out your own money on presents for miserable grannies in every conflict zone you fly into. You can’t even afford to hug them all farewell in their thin, war-torn dresses. A journalist must keep a dignified distance, the unwritten code has it. What outrage, then, when somebody breaks the rules of the game by buying pencils for the child of our Chechen hosts on the Grozny market! What hostility towards the freelancer who gives the cookies he has bought from a makeshift kiosk in devastated Samashki to 8-year old Shamil, who returns the favour with empty cartridge-cases and the remains of an exploded bomb. The studio director is quite within his rights to cut short these chaotic connections. The professionals respond by retreating into the protected space of their own principles: not giving anything away, even the slightest hint of solidarity with a too casual or friendly word or gesture. It should be enough to support this farmer by recording how she shamefacedly tries to hide her tears in the shadow of a wall of her destroyed house. Shouldn’t it? Such images reap praise in Zurich: “How sensitive!” The solace of cliché In Chechnya, of all places, images of this kind mislead. This is not a country of tears. Here, lamenting one’s fate is regarded as bad taste. “We are a mountain people. We don’t cry. May the mountains cry in our stead.” That’s how they talk here, and that’s how they fight. Stoicism is a characteristic trait of this tenacious people. This does not help a TV career. A successful director relies on standard-issue tears. The camera zooms in on some old women on a bench beside the ruins of Samashki. A woman you have just filmed tips them off, and they blubber away. Needless to say, this scene will later be incorporated in the documentary. The elderly tell you how they were herded into cattle wagons and deported to Kazakhstan in 1944 on Stalin’s orders; mothers explain how Russian soldiers today snatch their sons and whisk them away to “filtratio[...]